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Negro Speaks of Rivers

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The work under analysis is “Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes. I chose it, because, to my mind, it is a good representation of what the enslaved people feel, and it is important to understand what the ancient history and the ancestors’ destiny meant to the author. These questions were difficult to answer, because he does not speak about his feelings directly, and the reader has to follow the symbolic images.

The poem influenced my understanding of slavery, because it implements all the suffrage and pain of Afro-Americans. Nevertheless, the author demonstrates positive thinking and hope for better.

The hardest in the writing process was to stay objective and put all the feelings into proper words.

In my opinion, the essay’s strength is the effort to look beyond the visible surface of the poem and to analyze its symbols and images, because sometimes it is hard to understand what the author is really trying to tell you. On the other hand, it is also a weak point, because I have not had the experience similar to his, and this may be an obstacle on the way to proper understanding of the message.

As the feedback, I would like my instructor to evaluate the work objectively and try to realize that the essay is written as the result of personal evaluation of Hughe’s poem. This evaluation is based on my own experience and knowledge, so there might be some discrepancies between what the author was meaning to tell and what I have understood.

Coming to America

Slavery was an extremely difficult period in the history of Afro-American people, so it is no wonder that many of those who experienced the suffrage on their own put their deep feelings into poetic works. Many of the pieces became popular all over the world, and one of them is a famous poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes. Despite the fact that the title of the poem fully corresponds to its content, the lines written by the author are deeply symbolic and can tell the reader much more than it may seem at first sight.

Hughes, who was born in the United States into an already free society, shows a strong bond with his ancestors. This work is dedicated to W. E. B. Dubois, an African American activist. Hughes said he wrote the poem while being on a train. Charmed by the beauty of the Mississippi and the Missouri, he finished the piece in a few minutes. His trajectory follows the route of his nation to America. Starting from Euphrates and Congo, they were moving to the Nile and the Mississippi. The structure is frame-like – he repeats the phrase “I’ve known rivers” at the beginning and at the end. Such technique makes the impression that the author lives all the history together with his people, and this changes him. At the beginning, he was simply a human being without any indication of his backgrounds. However, after Hughes experienced discrimination and racism, his soul is hurting, he has become a black person, who is no longer carelessly “bathing” in the river and listening to its lullaby.

The rivers which accompany the black nation are the source of life. First, there are the ancient rivers which indicate the birth of the young society that has a long and difficult way to go. They seem to be timeless and eternal; it feels like they started their existence long before humans did. Hughes indicates that he is strongly connected to the rivers – they appear to be present in each period of his life. He suggests that the black people and the rivers have become a single organism, and when after Lincoln’s Proclamation slavery was ended, the Mississippi turned “all golden in the sunset” as if it was celebrating freedom together with the people. The last line suggests that just as the rivers grow deeper and cleaner with time, so does the black soul become greater and purer. Similarly, the spirit of the black people is immortal just like the rivers. They witnessed the birth and destruction of civilizations, so they are strong enough to overcome American oppression.

Generally speaking, Hughes does not mention discrimination and slavery directly. Obviously, that is why he chose water to be the main hero of his poem. It exists regardless of time and history. No matter what people do, rivers will be flowing. The tone of the poem is very calm and relaxed. Despite the fact that he tells story of a difficult and complicated life, he uses very pleasant images: he tells how he “bathed in Euphrates”, and how Congo “lulled” him to sleep, the noise of the Mississippi is similar to singing, and the river turns golden when the nation is liberated.

To create the feeling of such calmness, the author uses many soft consonant sounds – /θ/, /s/, /%u0283/. While listening to the poem, the reader is under the impression that the author speaks of the ancient wisdom. It is a secret knowledge which the ancestors want to communicate to their descendants.

In conclusion, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is a poem with a vital underlying message. The image of the deep rivers, the poetic style of the author and the events described by him make the impression that the story is very serene. However, Hughes speaks of the difficulties his nation had to overcome and of the life-changing experience he had.

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